Archive for the ‘Park, David (2)’ Category

The Light of Amsterdam, by David Park

May 24, 2012

Gift from Kimbofo at Reading Matters

There seems to come a point at each stage in life where little annoyances swell of their own accord into seemingly insurmountable problems, turning into a barrier that apparently cannot be crossed. Understandably, that is fertile territory for novelists be the stage childhood, adolescence, middle-age or impending senior citizenship (see Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending for an outstanding example of that stage).

Irish novelist David Park takes on the middle-age version in his new novel, The Light of Amsterdam. He also returns to a device that he used very successfully in his last, much-saluted novel, The Truth Commissioner: giving the reader an ensemble of characters set in somewhat similar circumstances facing very similar problems, although each must come up with a highly personal response to his or her challenge. So, as The Light of Amsterdam opens, here are the forbidding emotional “walls” that each of the three central characters is facing:

— Alan is a university art teacher in Belfast, recently divorced after 20 years of marriage because of a one-time dalliance with a mature student that lasted scarcely an hour in a sculpting studio. He confessed and it proved to be the excuse for his wife to end a union that for her obviously was withering with age and experience anyway. As the book opens, she and her new lover (a contractor) are set to head to Spain to look at a property she wants to convert into a bed-and-breakfast to begin a new life. Adding to the family issues, their 16-year-old son is going through his own adolescent version of scaling a life wall. And just to complicate Alan’s dilemma, his boss (a colleague from student days) has warned him that his post is at risk since he has neither published nor had a show for years.

— Karen is a single mother who works two cleaning jobs to support herself and her 20-year-old daughter, Shannon. Shannon’s father deserted Karen when she was 20 herself and three months pregnant (the prospect of fatherhood was just “too much” for him to face). Life is about to change for Karen because Shannon is engaged — a “hen party” in Amsterdam to which Karen is invited is the defining event that provokes her crisis. And, just to increase the complexity of her situation, she too faces a work issue — a resident at the senior citizen’s home where she works has “lost” a bracelet and the investigation has left her thinking that she is suspected of taking it.

— Marion’s life appears to be just fine. She and her husband, Richard, have spent decades establishing a garden centre that is prospering. But his last present to her — a year-long membership at a tony gym that she wants no part of — has convinced her that he is tiring of her and that his eyes are wandering. His friendly relationship with a couple of attractive Polish workers in the centre has led her to the notion that he intends to take up with one of them.

All three are about to head off from Belfast (religious, moral, tightly-controlled) to Amsterdam (secular, free-wheeling, anything goes) for a weekend. For Alan, who fondly remembers the city from his hippy phase, it is a concert by the aging Bob Dylan that is the attraction. Karen has never been there (indeed, never been on an airplane) and has no desire to go — she not only doesn’t want to be part of a hen party with a gaggle of 20-year-olds, she has questions about how suitable her daughter’s choice of mate is. And for Marion the “weekend away” (holidays are not something that she and Richard have been able to fit into the schedule) seems to signal another stage in the end of her marriage rather than a pause for rejuvenation.

I like to give visitors here quotes from the novel to indicate the author’s style and that is hard to do with David Park. His narrative is orderly and connected, steady and straightforward without the kind of peaks that make for easy quotes. That said, he is also perceptive enough that he frequently digresses to add some depth to what his character is feeling — that is how he makes them complete. Here’s an example as a fearful Karen prepares for the takeoff of her first-ever flight:

Perhaps the flight was her moment of initiation and if only she could endure it then everything would be open to her. Her hands gripped the armrests as the engines started and the plane began to move along the runway.

She told herself that she was brave enough for this, had already shown how strong she was from the moment when three months pregnant she had read his letter telling her that he was leaving. Written in pencil on a page torn from a spiral notebook, the edges had little curls of white that flaked away in her hand. So he wasn’t ready to be a father, it had all been a mistake, it was better to put things right before it went any further, he was sorry but it was better to be honest. He had tried, really tried, but it was of no use. Of course he hadn’t told her that he had met someone else — she would find this out only later. It was a page taken from the book he used in his PVC windows business. He had made her a customer and was settling the account.

In the “freedom” of Amsterdam, all three characters will look not just at what they perceive as their present crisis, but also the past that produced it. Their paths do cross in the Dutch city but that is more a novelistic convenience than anything else — this is a book about how three people come to terms with their similar, but highly individual, challenges.

For this reader, Park succeeded in making each of his characters an interesting study. At times, each gets his or her own chapter. In other chapters, he alternates with sections for each of the three. The usual problem with books that use this technique is that one of the characters becomes more (or, worse, less) interesting than the others and the book gets choppy — Park succeeded in balancing all three stories and it was easy to move with him when he shifted focus. It is an introspective book, so that balance is important — he brought all three to life and I found myself caring about each of them. In their lives, the three are “ordinary” people; in the novel, Park makes each “special”.

(My copy of The Light of Amsterdam was a present from my fellow Shadow Giller judge, Kimbofo at Reading Matters, who brought it from London on her recent trip to Canada where she was able to meet up with Mrs. KfC and another juror, Alison Gzowski, for a Shadow Giller dinner. You can read Kimbofo’s review here. The novel is not scheduled for North American release until October but is available from the Book Depository and other UK sources — for David Park fans, it is well worth the effort.)


Swallowing the Sun, by David Park

April 24, 2009

park11David Park first came to my attention last summer when a number of people on the Man Booker forum tipped The Truth Commissioner as a longlist contender. I ordered the Northern Ireland author’s book then, but it went on the shelf when it missed the longlist. I finally got to it late in 2008 and was very impressed — and resolved to visit more of this writer’s work.

park2Swallowing the Sun arrived a few weeks ago and took its place on the “read soon” pile. So when John Self offered a review on the Asylum recently, I moved it up the pile. John wondered how much his own familiarity with the Belfast setting influenced his impression of the book — I figured that given that I lived an ocean and the better part of a continent away, and have never been to Belfast, I would be well placed to offer an answer.

I am delighted to report that Swallowing the Sun travels very well. I am sure familiarity with the setting would add another dimension, but even without that it is a very good book.

The central character is Martin Waring, the setting is Belfast and the timing is just after the Troubles. While that disruption plays a part in Martin’s dismal circumstances, Park is very careful about how much and when he reveals that — the book is about the consequences of that environment on a family of individuals, not the political events themselves.

For the first half of the book, Martin is a study in repressed anger — the seeds of which were sown by an abusive father and which have grown to maturity in the troubled Ireland where he lives. He is married, although there are tensions there, and has a studious and successful teenage daughter, Rachel, (who may well earn a place at Oxford or Cambridge) and an overweight, video-game-playing son, Tom, who shows every indication of growing into a modern day version of his father.

The only thing Martin likes about his life is his job as a security guard at a museum; it is a place where he can retreat from a world that he does not understand and immerse himself in calming history:

“You belong in a museum, Dad,” Rachel says and everyone, including Tom, smiles. It’s the family’s favourite joke.
He spends his life looking at people and things. Sometimes he walks about a little, sometimes he checks things — dials, temperatures, doors; things like that. He feels comfortable with the little rituals, the routines that have to be followed.
He watches the visitors, too. They change — with the weather, the day of the week, the time of year. He watches them but they don’t see him. It’s as if he watches them from behind the protection of a glass and even when their eyes rest on him it’s only for a second and then they move on.

It is no spoiler to say that Martin’s repressed anger will eventually explode — Park loads on the pressure until two events about midway through the book cause Martin to crack. From that point on, Swallowing the Sun becomes a quick-moving, plot-driven book.

In a number of ways, this novel reminded me of Travis Holland’s The Archivist’s Story, recently reviewed here. Just as Holland used Stalinist Russia to explore the consequences of repression on individuals, Park uses the turbulent history of Northern Ireland as a stage that creates an impact for individuals, not just Martin but his wife, children and brother as well. For me, both books succeed.

Park, in fact, uses a relatively unusual narrative technique to good effect in this book. While all of the narration is in the third person, he locates different sections — usually a few pages, sometimes even less than a page — from the point of view of each of his characters as they experience different versions of the same circumstances. It proves a very effective way of developing all of his major characters.

I can’t help but think that that was practice for The Truth Commissioner, where Park expands the technique. In that book (also post Troubles) the truth commissioner, a government minister, a retired detective and an expectant father alternate chapters as Park weaves his overall story.

I also can’t help but compare the two books. There is no doubt that The Truth Commissioner is a more ambitious book with a larger overall story, better realized for this reader. In no way is that a criticism of Swallowing the Sun; indeed, in some ways this more introspective book has more going for it. I don’t think reading the latter book first was a problem.

If you happen to get to this review quickly, John Self is running a draw for a free copy of Swallowing the Sun, shipped anywhere in the world — with an entry deadline of April 25, so hop to it. It is shameless of me to be piggy-backing on someone else’s contest, but then he was the guy who wondered how this book would read outside of Northern Ireland — very well, would be my conclusion.

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